Media: Why we need `boring' news

The young find it dull, advertisers won't pay for it. But we can't afford to take the news out of prime time

Once upon a time watching television was oh-so-simple. Mum, dad and the kids slumped around the only television set and watched hour upon hour of the same channel until the white dot faded into blackness in the middle of the screen. And you had better be sitting comfortably when it was time for the news at 9pm or 10pm, otherwise you might miss the Russians invading Hungary or the Americans threatening to go to war over Soviet missiles in Cuba.

But today, as 500 senior television news executives from 70 countries gather in Barcelona for the annual NewsWorld global summit, they are being forced to confront a millennial nightmare. The simplicities of the 1950s television home have long gone, and the titles of some of the NewsWorld seminars give a flavour of anxiety about the future.

"Boring News" - why television news is out of touch, and why young people refuse to watch it. "Next Generation News," - what will television news look like in 10 years? Dumber? Quicker? Slicker? "When the flagship hits the rocks" - a debate about whether, like ITN's excellent News at Ten, television news will be pushed to the margins of prime-time viewing because there is far more money to be made from advertising in movies and soap operas.

The discussion I will be chairing tomorrow has the cheerful title "The death of broadcast news?" though the question mark is debatable. Some of those taking part in NewsWorld believe it is a matter of only five to 10 years before expensive news bulletins will be thrown off mainstream commercial television and on to 24-hour news channels.

Internet companies, who have become the third force in electronic news after television and radio, say television's loss can only be their gain. Media strategy analysts claim the volume of money spent on advertising on the Internet is doubling every six months, mostly at the expense of television. The president of America's NBC News, Andy Lack, conceded the obvious problem. "The present reliance on television news will be dead in the next century. My kids have already begun to fall in love with the computer screen."

One of the panellists for tomorrow's NewsWorld discussion is Hans Mahr, the president of news and sport at Germany's most popular prime-time television channel RTL. Mr Mahr believes national flagship television news bulletins in prime time across the world will probably disappear from popular entertainment channels on commercial television, as they have in Germany.

The impact of this is profound both for the ways in which we get our news and also, potentially, for democracy. During the Kosovo war, for example - the first time German troops were used in European warfare since the defeat of Hitler - RTL and their commercial competitor SAT 1 both considered a prime-time televised debate on the war. But when they looked at the enormous losses of advertising revenue caused by cancelling popular entertainment shows like the X-Files, both channels stuck with entertainment and abandoned the debate.

The big issues surrounding war and peace were left to German state run channels ARD and ZDF. But it is not so much changes to what we watch that is giving international television executives ulcers. It is how we watch. The British statistician David Raybould has been researching how people in the UK watch television when they have access to more than just the five "terrestrial" channels: BBC 1 and 2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Raybould's new digital viewers are as different from our television family of the 1950s as rap music is from Perry Como. Raybould found that men in homes with satellite television watch 12 different channels a week, and in digital homes an astonishing 17 channels. Women watch 11 and 13 channels respectively. Those who watch most digital television, men aged between 25 and 44, are the most promiscuous of all. The most viewed channel for this group does not even reach 10 per cent of the total audience. That means that in digital Britain the prospect is of a country where we are all in our own little television worlds, watching different programmes, divorced from everyone else, and never likely to come upon television news unless we seek it out. The audience, in the jargon, is becoming fragmented and segmented.

Now if you think this is a world away from how you watch TV, then consider the projections which suggest more than half of us will have digital TV in the next four or five years. But the really interesting part of Raybould's research is how British viewers have followed America in developing butterfly minds.

A male digital TV viewer changes channels on average every 11 minutes. A woman viewer will manage to watch for an average of 17 minutes. Raybould suggests viewers with an enormous amount of television choice actually think differently. This kind of viewer does not consider which channel to watch so much as what type of programme he or she would like to see - entertainment, movies, sports, news, and so on. The modern viewer will keep flicking channels until something compelling hits the screen.

This is the killer punch for television executives because it destroys brand loyalty. If you want to watch Seinfeld, why should it matter whether you see it on Channel 4, on Irish TV, on BSKYB or on a satellite feed of an American channel? Who - except television executives and advertisers - really cares? Of course, Raybould's statistics have a huge bias. Those who have switched to digital, cable or satellite television are known - more jargon - as "early adopters". They have a bit of money, tend to be younger and tend towards being adventurous viewers. But everyone connected with the television industry accepts that audiences will become more fragmented. The question is how quickly. I like the idea of more choice, and do not see why television executives should decide what I watch and when I watch it. Imagine if someone told you which pages to read in this newspaper, and in which order, and you get an idea of how liberating more TV choice could be. Of course, many of us still like the idea of sitting down once a day to be told in 20 or 30 minutes by some trusted face the important news stories or issues of the day. In Britain, at least, this broadcast news tradition will continue. But at other times, and especially during a crisis like the Kosovo war, many of us want to watch events unfold with the greater depth and immediacy of a 24-hour news channel, or through an Internet news site.

The NewsWorld conference may not come up with the right answers to our television news future, but at least it will explore some of the right questions at a time when some politicians appear not to have noticed that 1950s television family is dead, and so is the idea of going back to four or five television channels. There is no going back.

But the really big question is whether the astonishingly different television audiences of the 21st century will become the active citizens and informed voters that healthy democracies need. And where will they get their news?

The writer is a presenter on BBC News 24

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor